Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Stupefying Flashbulbs by Daniel Brenner

Fence Books, 2006

Reviewed by Jared Stanley

This is a difficult book, partially because it demonstrates neither political posturing, an obvious theoretical stance, or prose poems, and partially because the work has quite a bit of energy around it, that kind of energy that Fanny Howe called “The line’s ecstatic lash.” There’s a sense that the creation of these poems was intoxicating, and that this intoxication (or whatever) is the point, but there’s also a refreshing lack (most of the time) of self-consciousness in the making. Saying that, however, doesn’t make the poems any less mysterious. For all of their excitement, there are pleasurable obstacles all over the place in this work. The poems in The Stupefying Flashbulbs don’t mean so much; they whirl and flash instead, neglecting punctuation in favor of a dependence on the line. On top of all that, they occasionally manage to be narrative. What’s at stake in the narrative, I’m not so sure. What the Phoenicians mean, or who McLight is in the grand scheme of Part 1 here, I just don’t know. Sometimes this book is so exact, and sometimes really stupid, but it does delight.

In writing about this book, I have a distinct sense that I might be either a) seriously misleading you b) totally misunderstanding the book, and/or c) imposing a sense of tradition on a book that strives to exist on its own terms. So, let us proceed. The first poem, “Liquified,” has traces of Slinger’s kookiness, and Prince’s shorthand:

          I went to the whirlpool and asked it
          N it looked at me & said child of the sea
          Listen as I tell U of the child of the earth

What I enjoy so much about this passage is that it speaks in these sort of reverent poetic tropes (addressing a whirlpool, “child of the sea”) in a way that’s lighter than air, unburdened of punctuation and poetic diction. Indeed, the whole first section of this book, with the aforementioned characters McLight and Whirlpool, is similarly unburdened. It’s a cycle of poems that are utterly mysterious, but they’re frothy, not, uh, fraught. The characters are allegorical effigies, I think. They stand for qualities that are brought forth in their names, to some degree. The whirlpool is constantly being questioned by the speaker, and in this sense is some kind of oracle or guide (maybe a kind of Virgil). But the whirlpool is also a stand-in for the forms of the poems themselves, which take disparate elements into its vortex and jumble them up, for example:

          Fraud the whirlpool is a fraud
          We are in the weeds about it
          Lurking around in thickets
          Through which we have cut
          Great swaths and made them
          Roads with chemicals and buried
          The chemicals in alcohol
          That we poured out on the road.


The sections that follow in the book (there are three) are formally similar, but drop the repeated characters. These poems have a whiff of Berrigan, or maybe a less-blighted Spicer. For example, “Calls For More Soda” begins “It’s boring more orange soda.” Immediacy and insouciance are the order of the day here. Look at the beginning of “Anthem Bag:”

          Outside the mall the wind howled
          The air was that purple feel
          The wind did what
          It was almost evening

The poem ends, “Because it means nothing / Isn’t that what we think” in which the speaker speaks simultaneously of the whirling tableau which S/he has detailed in the poem, while at the same time ventriloquizing the reader’s bewilderment, slyly showing us that a mall in a poem can be a very disorienting place for everyone involved. I’m reminded of Stevens critique of surrealism: “the essential fault of surrealism is that it invents without discovering.” This poem could be mistaken for inventing, but I think it’s really involved in discovery. That is, the mall in its mall-ness demands from this speaker a statement like “the air was that purple feel.”

There are other weird-ass lines like “gesture magnetize what we do.” This one’s frighteningly exact, and that gives it a surface texture of oddity. That line is also a good example of the earlier assertion that the book really is most successful on the level of the line. This makes the book seem occasionally messy, but I like it, because the reader can feel that Brenner isn’t the decider in this writing, which makes this a pretty different first book than so many we’ve seen as of late. The style is strong, and yet there’s little sense of the individual voice here. One feels that this writer has fewer designs on the reader than many other writers, and I like that. I feel as though I’m running around in a field. What I mean is, this book finds the writer working toward something, not having found a ready style, perfected it, and finished it, all in the same book, but looking around, discovering. It’s the kind of messiness that one loves seeing in photographs of painter’s studios, the messiness of work finding itself being found; in that case, by a photographer, but in the case of this book, by the words that appear in the whirlpool of the situation at hand.

I was first attracted to his work via some fantastic poems published in web journals, and that work was quite different than that work here in The Stupefying Flashbulbs. This suggests that Brenner’s work is finding itself as he writes it, and one can’t help but be swept up in the energy of the work. There’s no theoretical reason for the attentions of the poems to flit about the way they do, and that’s nice:

          Then the people who mess with you write a song about it
          We all make mistakes
          I’m afraid of looking back from the perspective of being chased
          & doing whatever it is that the perspective of being chased urges
          (“Savage Comfort”)

It’s not a perfect book, but it’s an exciting book.


DANIEL BRENNER was born near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in 1976. He currently lives in New Jersey and works as an independent contractor.


JARED STANLEY lives and works in Northern California. He is a co-author of a chapbook, In Fortune (dusie e/chaps), with Lauren Levin and Catherine Theis. Recently, poems have appeared in Conduit, Gutcult, and Shampoo.